There is a patience and commitment required in making a documentary film. Megan Spencer shows both of these attributes. Spencer is currently a regular film reviewer on JJJ – the job she says she was born to do, and it only took her 12 years to get there.
She understands that some things should not be rushed. Her first film, Heathens, about a group of very loud and opinionated St Kilda supporters was filmed in 1991 and was not released until 1996. Her latest film, Hooked on Christmas, was shot over 2 years and three Christmases (1994-1996), supplying her with over 50 hours footage, to be scaled down to a 78 minute feature.
Her commitment to her own work should be enough to earn Spencer the commendations she deserves, but there is so much more. “I grew up in the suburbs, that’s what I know. It’s in my blood and in my cells,” she says, and her films do show a sensibility which many filmmakers have tried to capture but failed. She displays the particular Australianness of suburban life, holding it up as iconic while maintaining a non-condescending sense of humour about it all. A rarity indeed. However, she says that she is still having some difficulties being taken seriously as a documentary filmmaker.
“It’s hard making the types of films I make, in the way that I make them,” says Spencer. “I’ve never had, or been offered any funding, which I’m actually OK about. I can make the film I think is important, or the film I want to make. But at the same time, Australia has a system of film funding and film distribution and exhibition which largely relies on a chain of events – a certain order or system. And if you’re outside of that system, it’s very difficult to be given validity as an artist or a film maker.”
Megan Spencer is part of a film industry revolution. She shoots all of her own material on her own video camera and then edits it on her own time. She says that more and more people are making films this way, and we are bound to see a change in the attitudes of distributors, cinemas and audiences.
“It’s a period of the film industry catching up with what’s happening outside of itself,” she says. “There are a lot of people out there making films completely independently – without any government money. There are people who own their own gear, work on it in their bedrooms and their films get shown in pubs. Which is a fantastic kind of revolution. It’s part of film culture that the industry can’t control. The great thing about the digital video revolution is that it is a revolution, and it’s actually going to make a really big difference when Australia decides it wants to catch up. The thing about video cameras, even pre-digital, it put technology, filmmaking technology – I’m going to sound like Marx here – in the hands of the people. It’s a completely democratic medium. It also means that anyone can express themselves through filmmaking. And I’m not saying that everybody who picks up the camera, a) should be a filmmaker or b) is a filmmaker. But just the idea that someone can make their own movie is still [seen as] really threatening.”
The advantage for Megan Spencer, in this film industry revolution is the allowance for spontaneity and serendipity. There is an instantaneousness in her choice of subject matter that is then countered by the years it takes to complete the project. With Heathens, Spencer found herself with hours of footage of blokes screaming at the footy, screaming at the replay on the telly, screaming pub stories at each other, screaming for a pass of the footy as they make their way through the streets of Moorabbin. It was only after watching and rewatching the footage that the nature of the film actually presented itself to her.
“When I made the decision to make both these films,” she says, “it came straight out of instinct. Particularly with the Christmas film, someone dumped me on the nature strip and I saw this thing, this beautiful beast in front of me. I wanted to know who was responsible for it, and I met him, and I knew instantly that I wanted to make a film about him. Part of the thing about documentary is that you embark on a journey, and you have no idea where it’s going to take you. A lot of ways it’s actually the best way to make docos.”
There is a beauty in Hooked on Christmas which would seem unnatural in any fiction film. It is the portrait of Brian and Helen Neal, an East Bentleigh couple who devote the better part of a year preparing for their front-yard Christmas display which features thousands of lights, music and mechanical push-button displays with Disney themes. It is a love story. It is a comment on society. It is simultaneously touching and irksome.
“It’s a film about a generation,” says Spencer. “It’s a film about people who move to the suburbs because it was still a frontier, and it was where you could make your own space and literally carve out your own identity within the suburb. They unconsciously hang on to an older way of life. It’s an older way of life that I think is good and communal, but then there are some other values there that are at odds with the way the world is now. They’ve kind of created a time capsule, albeit a materialistic one. In a sense you can see this continuum between then and now. But they’re very complex people. I wouldn’t say that they’re any more materialistic than anyone else, probably less so. I think in many ways they know what the real importance of life is – maybe it’s not so obvious in the film – but to strive to find a place in the world.”
Spencer cites Andy Warhol as being one of her teachers. Warhol’s tendency to leave the room after setting up the camera, therefore being as unobtrusive as possible with regard to his subject matter in some ways, according to her, makes him a pure documentarian. There is also Warhol’s love of all things boring as entertainment. “Elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary,” she says, “which is what documentaries often do. They show you the banalities of life. Banality is something that, in text books, people may not tell you is what we go to see films for. But when you see those moments in between, that we sort of edit out in our daily experience, when they’re put on the screen, it’s almost a spiritual experience.”
Spencer’s drive and passion are extraordinary. She is working on numerous other projects at the moment, some of them still haven’t presented their true nature to her as yet, but she keeps working on them. When she discusses her fondness for the medium of documentary and its place in the cinema world she gets an excited tone to her voice, as if describing some kind of utopian technology future. “The thing that we have to never lose sight of is that film is art and, moreover, documentary is an art form,” she says. “It’s not just a half hour, encapsuled, easy to digest, uncomplicated piece of infotainment or exotica slice of life, with a fucking voice-over explaining what’s going on all the time. It’s all the things that fiction is, and more.”
By Josh Kinal